It took four seasons of Sherlock, the BBC’s re-imagining of the world’s greatest detective for the modern digital world, for creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis to turn their “high-functioning sociopath” into a human being, not just a great man but a good one. But in the process they turned Arthur Conan Doyle’s well-ordered world of logic and deduction into a surreal universe of comic book supervillains and absurdly complex schemes in the realm of scriptwriter fantasy. As much fun as it is to watch Benedict Cumberbatch play the flamboyant misanthrope as a performance artist who holds his audience in contempt, this Holmes became a cartoon of Doyle’s consulting detective, only fitfully grounded by Martin Freeman’s warm, witty, and highly observant Dr. John Watson.
It’s wasn’t the first project to reimagine Holmes, and it won’t be the last, but it holds a complicated place among fans for its mix of ingenuity and excess, its wildly uneven track record, and the ultimately disappointing payoff of its promising early episodes. Even the most devoted Sherlock devotees confess that it went off the rails in the fourth season, a train-wreck of wild invention, shameless misrepresentation, and logical deduction that pushed the limits of Doyle’s motto: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
The Imitation Game proves that a ripping true story can survive even the Oscar-bait effect. This is a profile of Alan Turing: British mathematician, code-breaker of Germany’s Enigma device (a feat of decrypting that significantly shortened World War II, per Winston Churchill), father of the machines we now call computers. Turing’s achievements were long kept secret, although he’s been depicted a few times in recent years, including a BBC take with Derek Jacobi (Breaking the Code, 1996) and a fictionalized film with Dougray Scott (Enigma, 2001). But The Imitation Game is bound to prove definitive, if not Oscar-winning.
Here Benedict Cumberbatch plays the brilliant Turing as a borderline-autistic personality, a rude brainiac who fiddles with his big computing machine while his colleagues (led by Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, and Charles Dance—that British acting pool remains deep) stand around scratching their heads.
The Fifth Estate (Touchstone, Blu-ray, DVD) – Benedict Cumberbatch makes such a fascinating Julian Assange that it only focuses attention the problems with Bill Condon’s portrait of Assange, WikiLeaks and the Bradley Manning revelations.
Ostensibly about how Assange and WikiLeaks rocked the word with a whistleblowing leak on a scale unseen since The Pentagon Papers, the film is more fascinated with the contradictions within the character of Assange, whose achievements were almost eclipsed by accusations of sexual misconduct and his flight from extradition, than on the reverberations of the web publication of classified documents.
I guess it’s no surprise that, like so much of the reporting on the issue, the real story—of government lies, of the vulnerability of secret information, of what the leaked intelligence does to our trust in our own government—is sidelined by the human sideshow.
As sideshows go, Cumberbatch is riveting as the thin white duke of digital activism, a churlish Sherlock under a white bleach job and pasty pallor who wants to be thought of as the mysterious mastermind in the shadows while playing the flamboyant showman for an audience of hackers. Is he an idealist who dedicates his entire life to fighting power or a pathological liar with an ego-driven personality, a holier-than-thou arrogance and a need for attention that trumps social activism? To put it in computer-age terms, it’s a film in a binary universe, all about singular contradiction as defining characteristics rather than a spectrum of detail. And when it comes to the WikiLeaks web network, Condon’s visual metaphors present the digital world with analogue sensibility. Or maybe an MTV video from a decade ago.
Daniel Brühl is the junior partner he adopts to help out what was essentially a one-man crusade hidden behind a digital network that suggested a small army of conspirators and ends up challenging and alienating Assange. Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie and Stanley Tucci stand in for the American intelligence community in a subplot that pretends to illustrate how the information dump put the life of an ally in peril, a storyline more calculated than convincing. What should be the 21st century All the President’s Men forgoes the complexity of the issues to hammer on the big contrasts and makes Assange’s petty personality eccentricities more of a focus than his actual accomplishments.
Blu-ray and DVD with three featurettes plus trailers and TV spots. The Blu-ray edition also features a bonus DVD and UltraViolet Digital HD copy for download and instant streaming.
Argento’s Dracula (IFC Midnight, Blu-ray+Blu-ray 3D, DVD) is how it reads on the disc case. On the screen it’s Dario Argento’s Dracula and on the IMDb it’s Dracula 3D. Any way you list it, this Dracula feels like the last gasp of a once creatively mad cinematic chemist, stirring combustible colors and unstable reactions into strange concoctions of murder and madness. There is a vibrancy to some of the art direction and set design in this busy but oddly inert take on the Bram Stoker novel, which adds a bunch of mayhem but else to justify yet another take on the same story, but over the last couple of decades Argento seems to have lost all sense of directing actors. The performances are all over the place here, some of them stilted and stuffy as if in a Victorian stage piece (Unax Ugalde’s Jonathan Harker looks like a dazed clown trying to remember marks), others sloppily hamming it up (Darios’s daughter Asia is one of the guilty parties on that score). Only Rutger Hauer brings a sense of history to his character when he appears around the 2/3s mark as a melancholy Van Helsing, as if his calling carries a high price in terms of loss and sacrifice.
Say what you want about Julian Assange, the guy is a talented blurb writer. Since reading an early screenplay draft about his WikiLeaks adventures, Assange has fired off a series of withering one-liners about the project. One recent declaration: “The result is a geriatric snooze-fest that only the U.S. government could love.” The adjective there is particularly cruel. Accuse the movie of distortions, or demonization, or of aligning itself with the CIA—fine. But “geriatric” is the kiss of death in Hollywood. What’s worse, Assange actually has a point.
The object of Assange’s displeasure does indeed carry the whiff of, if not old age, at least a pre-millennial’s attempt to understand this newfangled Wiki-world. Whenever director Bill Condon (Kinsey, Dreamgirls) wants to convey the Wild West reach of what can happen with information on the Internet, he uses cornball visualizations: hundreds of wired desks manned by hundreds of Assanges in a warehouse with no end, or fireballs exploding across the same space. The invention looks trite, but the effort is understandable. In some ways, The Fifth Estate lines up as a movie about people sitting at laptops. Sometimes they type.
It sounded like a terrible idea at the time: update Sherlock Holmes to the 21st century of texts and computer searches and blogs.
To the surprise and delight of all, the first series of Sherlock, the BBC revival / revision of the classic detective developed by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss was intelligent, inspired, clever, compelling, and very, very entertaining. Sherlock: Season Two (BBC), which consists of three feature-length mysteries, ups the ante and the ambition.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is still a tetchy, borderline Asperger syndrome genius more interested in a challenge than justice and Martin Freeman’s Watson holds his own as a witty, warm, loyal and often critical assistant to his eccentric roommate. But in this run the anti-social Holmes has become a media celebrity and Jim Moriarty not merely an underworld mastermind but an insane criminal who, like Holmes, just wants a challenge.
The creators don’t just update the classic stories, they reimagine them. The inspirations are imbedded in the tweaked titles — “An Affair in Belgravia” (with Lara Pulver as a memorable Irene Adler), “The Hounds of Baskerville” (set in Britain’s answer to Area 51), and “The Reichenbach Fall” (with Andrew Scott as insane criminal genius James Moriarty) — and writers Moffat and Gatiss (who serves double duty as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft onscreen) spin new stories out of the situations and characters and iconic elements of the originals
The three episodes are really feature films, not just in running time but in scope and depth and complexity, and director Paul McGuigan adds a visual aesthetic to match in the first two films of the second season. We don’t simply observe the way Sherlock cases a room, we get a peek into the way he picks out details and files away observations, and an idea at the restlessness of his OCD mind.
But it wouldn’t work without the characters, the fully-realized characterizations, and the chemistry. As played by Cumberbatch, Holmes is a magnificent character and this is the first incarnation to allow him to be such a thoughtless misanthrope (even while showing the cracks in his emotional armor). But let us please acknowledge that Freeman’s far less showy yet equally realized John Watson is the best screen incarnation of this character ever, an intelligent, capable military doctor with as much courage as compassion. And the makeover of Lestrade from the bumbling foil and comic relief of previous adaptations into a competent, talented police detective with both professional and personal interests in Sherlock only adds to dynamic. It’s always more interesting when Sherlock is the smartest person in a room full of smart people.